Kathryn Sullivan came to Alaska with a present for Alaska and its lieutenant governor, Mead Treadwell: a newly minted map of Kotzebue Sound on the state's northwest coast, upgraded from the 19th Century model.
Sullivan, a former astronaut and the first woman to walk in space, is now deputy administrator and acting chief scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Her agency, she said, faces a huge challenge in upgrading navigational data in the Arctic Ocean as summer sea ice continues to diminish and the region opens to more vessels.
"Much of the coastline and offshore waters here are comparatively poorly mapped, mapped in a sort of once-upon-a-time time frame, very early British Admiralty charts done with lead lines, are not uncommmonly the primary source of data for what's on the bottom and how deep," she said.
She spoke Tuesday between sessions of the NOAA's Hydrographic Services Review Panel, which advises NOAA on how to improve the nation's marine transportation.
Still icebound for most of the year, the Arctic Ocean is seeing open water sooner and longer. The average September sea ice extent from 1979 to 2000 was 2.7 million square miles, but it has fallen to as few as 1.65 million square miles, a record set in 2007. Projected diminished sea ice led to the listing of polar bears as a threatened species.
NOAA has a lot of catching up to do in aiding future mariners off Alaska's north and western shores.
"The speed with which the economic opportunities and incentives of an ice-free Arctic emerge is certainly currently looking to be much more rapid than the speed with which information gathering, and assembling this picture, will occur," Sullivan said.
The NOAA hydrographic survey ship Fairweather performed a full ocean bottom survey last summer at Kotzebue Sound, about 550 miles northwest of Anchorage and 150 miles east of the Bering Strait. Ships carrying cargo on a shorter northern route between Europe and Asia would pass through the strait.
The new Kotzebue Sound chart, according to the agency, shows a full range of depth measurements. It replaces a chart that used data from the 1800s that was spaced three to five miles apart. That left room for undetected dangers in between measurements, the agency says.
The agency considered Kotzebue Sound a pressing need. Barge shipments and large transport ships serving Kotzebue, the hub for northwest Alaska villages must anchor well offshore because of shallow water, inadequate charts and navigational aids. Freight is transferred to smaller barges for the last 14 miles.
NOAA says about one-third of the country's Arctic waters are important to navigation, based on water depth and the draft of ships expected to transit the region. The agency's Office of Coast Survey identifies 38,000 squares miles as a priority for new surveys, a task that will take 25 years.
Alaska, with more coastline than the rest of the country combined, is geographically huge and topically huge, Sullivan said.
"Seafloor bathymetry, tides, currents, actual shorelines, ecosystem characteristics — which are more fragile, which are less fragile, less vulnerable coastlines, human populations — all of that — the data are sparse," she said.
Putting data together in a system that will allow information to be synthesized and made useful to entities from tribes to the federal government will be another step, she said.
Sullivan echoed Treadwell, who made the point that change is coming whether the United States is prepared or not. At least eight countries are drilling for petroleum in Arctic waters, she said, and the United States is not the only decision-maker.
"A new world is coming upon us, as tends to always be the case in life, ready or not, here it comes," she said.
By DAN JOLING